Building Imaginary Worlds: An Interview with Mark J. P. Wolf (Part One)

This is the first of a series of interviews I am planning to run on this blog throughout the fall with authors, critics, and designers who are exploring the concept of world building through their work.


The concept of world-building (or world-sharing, as Derek Johnson recently described it) has a long and varied history with roots in the popular discourse of science fiction and fantasy writers and in analytic and aesthetic philosophy. Increasingly, the concept of world building has become foundational to discussions of transmedia storytelling. As one long time screen writer told me some years ago, when he started, he pitched a story because you needed to have a great story to make a great film; then, he pitched a character because a compelling character can extend across a series of sequels; and now, he pitches a world, since a world can support multiple stories involving multiple characters across multiple media platforms. Yet, even without the kind of radical intertextuality represented by transmedia practices, world-building is central to a great deal of genre fiction writing. Indeed, some have complained that science fiction and fantasy often lacks compelling (or at least rounded) characters or classically constructed plots because it is more interested in building and exploring worlds than dealing with individuals.


For an example of how the concept of a world gets used in conversations around contemporary media franchises, check out  Travis Beacham’s introduction to the graphic novel prequel to Pacific Rim:

“The story is in the world; not the other way around. That is to say, a world is big and hopelessly uncontrollable. It spills messily outside the edges of any one story. A world has books on its shelves and articles in its newspapers. It has ephemera and lore. It has slang and jargon. It has footnotes and obscure references to take for granted. It has a deep past and a far side. It has roads that fork away from the plot to some only hinted-at place. Just as ‘real world’ stories set themselves on this Earth, with all her richness and complexity, the challenge of genres like science fiction and fantasy is to not only spin a good tale, but to invent for that tale an imagined backdrop that seems to stretch clear into the horizon.”

One of my favorite descriptions of the concept of the world comes from Dudley Andrew’s book, Concepts in Film Theory:

“Worlds are comprehensive systems which comprise all elements that fit together within the same horizon, including elements that are before our eyes in the foreground of experience, and those which sit vaguely on the horizon forming a background. These elements consist of objects, feelings, associations, and ideas in a grand mix so rich that only the term ‘world’ seems large enough to encompass it….We step into a Dickens novel and quickly learn the type of elements that belong there. The plot may surprise us with its happenings, but every happening must seem possible in that world because all the actions, characters, thoughts and feelings come from the same overall source. That source, the world of Dickens, is obviously larger than the particular rendition of it which we call Oliver Twist. It includes versions we call David Copperfield and The Pickwick Papers too. In fact, it is larger than the sum of novels Dickens wrote, existing as a set of paradigms, a global source from which he could draw. Cut out from this source are anachronistic elements like telephones or space ships, and elements belonging to other types of fiction (blank verse, mythological characters, and even accounts of the life of royalty.) It should be clear that even such a covering term as ‘the world of Dickens’ has no final solidarity or authority. A young reader of David Copperfield and Oliver Twists might consider these texts to be versions of a world of education and family relations which concern him outside of literature. The Dickens scholar naturally would consider these texts to be part of the complete writings of Dickens. What they represented for Dickens himself, who lived within them during the years of their composition, no one can say. One goal of interpretation has always been to make coincide the world of the reader with that of the writer.”

Andrew’s comments already point to fault lines in our understanding of the concept of world-building. Mark J. P. Wolf’s new book, Building Imaginary Worlds, uses as its foundation J.R.R. Tolkien’s concept of “sub-creation,” an approach he explains below. This approach values world building which expands beyond the world as we currently know it, which creates an imaginary world from scratch. Andrew’s approach here sees all texts as building up worlds that help define what events may or may not occur there, what characters may or may not exist, what outcomes are or are not plausible, etc. Historical fiction or documentary fiction, by this definition, may require extensive amounts of research in order to build up a richly realized world and make it comprehensible to the viewer. I have, for example, been drawn into the world of women’s prisons as mapped and explored by this summer’s Orange Is the New Black: while this world looks very much like real institutions,  while this series is loosely based on a memoir, most of us knew little of this world before we started to watch the series, the author has gradually added more details and complicated our initial impressions of this world episode by episode, and we draw more and more on that expanded comprehension to make sense of what we are seeing. I often point to something like Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York as a fantastic example of the role of world-building in historical fiction, even if, again, this world is being reconstructed rather than fabricated from scratch. Andrew’s account suggests worlds are built as much by readers as by authors, that they emerge intertextually through the relationship between a range of different texts, and moving a bit beyond him, I would argue that worlds are performative — that is, any given text seeks to evoke a world in the mind of the reader and may or may not successfully achieve that project. Perhaps there is no real conceptual disagreement between these different senses of a world, only a matter of emphasis: Wolf, for example, acknowledges that works that remain closer to the primary world of real experience may still engage in activities of world-building, while his own emphasis is on works that are “sub-created,” that involve a higher degree of original creation on the part of their authors (and readers?).

This potential disagreement aside,  Mark J. P. Wolf’s Building Imaginary Worlds is an extraordinary accomplishment –and a great starting point for an ongoing discussion of the concept of world-building.  Wolf starts with a core background in game studies and science fiction/fantasy and expands outward to develop an encyclopedic account of the place of imaginary worlds in contemporary narrative practice. I’ve known Mark for a long time and he’s been working on this book as far back as I can remember, and it’s exciting to see all of the pieces fall into place. He employs thousands of examples of fictional worlds to illustrate his core arguments, which include discussions of history as well as theory, going back to the earliest adventure stories and forward to contemporary experiments in transmedia storytelling. I have assigned this book for my Transmedia class this term and see it as essential reading for anyone interested in understanding the place of world-building in contemporary culture. Wolf is perhaps best known to my readers as a scholar who has written extensively about video and computer games, so games researchers may be interested to see how he uses theories of imaginary worlds here to revisit some of the core questions animating that field also.

The following conversation only scratches the surface. Today, we are going to try to map Wolf’s basic model of “sub-creation” and “imaginary worlds,” and over three more installments, we will get deeper into the implications of this model, looking at such contemporary examples as Star Trek: Into Darkness, Pacific Rim, and Defiance.

Let’s start with the key words in the book’s title. What do you mean here by “worlds” and how is it related to the concept of “subcreation”?

 As I explain in the first chapter, the term “world” is not used in the geographic sense (like planets), but in the experiential sense, meaning the sum total of a character’s experiences; therefore, an imaginary world could be a planet or galaxy, or more limited in scope, like a continent, a country, or even a city. The fact that it is an imaginary (or “secondary”, to use Tolkien’s term) world means that it is somehow set apart from the “real” (or “Primary”) world, with some boundaries between them, making the secondary world a thing of its own; and whereas some boundaries are physical or geographic in nature, such as mountain ranges, deserts, oceans, and so forth (or the surface of the earth itself, for underground worlds), some boundaries are temporal in nature (as in worlds set in the distant past or future, making them equally inaccessible to us in the present), or even conditional, such as in the alternate versions of the Primary world that some stories present. Tolkien separates the two by calling them the Primary world and Secondary worlds (borrowing terms from Coleridge’s discussion of the two types of imagination), and writes that the latter is dependent on the former, hence the term “subcreation” (literally, “creating under”); secondary worlds use material from the Primary world, reshaping and recombining elements from it, so that the end result is both recognizable but also new and different. So what the book examines, then, is how imaginary worlds depart from our world, and how they are created by authors.

Does the term, world-building, apply to works, such as, say, Gangs of New York, which reconstruct richly-detailed versions of actual historical worlds or does it only apply to works of the imagination?

 I would say the term “world-building” definitely applies, since in cases like Gangs of New York (2002) or Titanic (1997), the past is being meticulously built and recreated. But in both of these cases, and especially that of Titanic, it is something from the Primary World that is being recreated (even though some of the characters are fictional), whereas the kind of world-building that my book is mainly concerned with is the building of secondary (imaginary) worlds. So the term can apply to both.

Of course, it could be pointed out that even the version of the Primary world that each person carries around in his or her head involves a certain amount of imagination, since we fill in parts of the world we have not seen or have forgotten, so in a sense, both kinds of worlds involve the imagination; but secondary worlds are more clearly set apart from the Primary World.

As I point out in the book’s first chapter, there are varying degrees of what we could call “secondariness”, based on how much invention a secondary world contains; some, like the Star Wars Galaxy or Middle-earth, are very different from the Primary World, whereas others, like Lake Wobegon or More’s Utopia, have less invention but are still imaginary.

Then the question becomes, how much invention is needed to call something a “world”? Some fictional characters set in a real place isn’t really enough; to be a “world” you would, I would argue, need a fictional location as well, and one large enough that someone could live there (getting back to the experiential sense of “world”). So although it is a matter of degree, there is a point where you have enough that a secondary world can stand alone on its own, and that’s usually where most people would probably consider it a separate “world”.

In discussing Nelson Goodman’s Ways of World-making, Dudley Andrew argues that the works of a single author — his example is Dickens — may add up to a single world, even if the author never signals any connection between these works. Would you agree?

 I suppose it is possible, though if no connection is indicated, then one would not be forced to conclude that the worlds are connected. Such connections are often made clear by the author, sometimes retrospectively, like L. Frank Baum’s tying together the various lands his stories take place in, which he did to connect them to Oz. Certainly if an author has a popular world, it is in the author’s interest to do so, as this adds canonical material to a world that an audience may be interested in (and sometimes such a link is the only reason an audience is interested, at least initially).

Dickens’ works are all arguably set in the Primary world, so I think it would be difficult to make the case that he’s creating a secondary world; in such a situation, transnarrative characters could signal ways that individual narratives are connected, but they can still be set together in the Primary world without creating a secondary world (if the amount of invention is low enough). So one could have connected stories set in the Primary World, which make no reference to a secondary world, even though they contain fictional characters and events. On the other hand, two or more series can take place in a linked universe in such a tenuous way that for all practical purposes the series are considered separately; for example Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Barsoom series (about Mars), his Amtor series (about Venus), and his Tarzan series all arguably take place in the same universe, but each has a different main character and occurs on a different planet, with only a little overlap between them.


Mark J. P. Wolf is a Professor in the Communication Department at Concordia University Wisconsin.  He has a B. A. (1990) in Film Production and an M. A. (1992) and Ph. D. (1995) in Critical Studies from the School of Cinema/Television (now renamed the School of Cinematic Arts) at the University of Southern California.  His books include Abstracting Reality: Art, Communication, and Cognition in the Digital Age (2000), The Medium of the Video Game (2001), Virtual Morality: Morals, Ethics, and New Media (2003), The Video Game Theory Reader (2003), The World of the D’ni: Myst and Riven (2006), The Video Game Explosion: A History from PONG to PlayStation and Beyond (2007), The Video Game Theory Reader 2 (2008), Before the Crash: An Anthology of Early Video Game History (2012), the two-volume Encyclopedia of Video Games: The Culture, Technology, and Art of Gaming (2012), Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation (2012), The Routledge Companion to Video Game Studies (forthcoming), Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (forthcoming), Video Games Around the World (forthcoming), and LEGO Studies: Examining the Building Blocks of a Transmedial Phenomenon (forthcoming) and two novels for which he has begun looking for an agent and publisher.  He is also founder and co-editor of the Landmark Video Game book series from University of Michigan Press.  He has been invited to speak in North America, Europe, Asia, and Second Life, and is on the advisory boards of Videotopia and the International Journal of Gaming and Computer-Mediated Simulations, and on several editorial boards including those of Games and Culture, The Journal of E-media Studies, and Mechademia: An Annual Forum for Anime, Manga and The Fan Arts.  He lives in Wisconsin with his wife Diane and his sons Michael, Christian, and Francis.  []